October 2020, Volume 26, Number 4
Meat and Migrants
Over 10 percent of the 3,200 employees at the JBS Greeley, Colorado plant tested positive for Covid-19 in spring 2020. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 7, which represents JBS Greeley employees, said that 70 percent of Greeley employees were minorities. Thirty different languages are spoken by the refugees. JBS closed the Greeley plant for two weeks in April 2020 at the urging of local health officials, but reopened it soon afterward with new safety protocols.
Worker advocates filed civil rights complaints against JBS and Tyson Foods with USDA, alleging that the failure of these meatpackers to prevent coronavirus outbreaks among Black and Latino workers was racial discrimination. At least six JBS Greeley workers died, and some of their families sued JBS after it opposed requests for death benefits from workers compensation insurance. JBS argued that it was not clear where the dead workers contracted Covid.
The Occupational Safety and Health Agency fined JBS’s Greeley, Colorado beef plant $15,615 in September 2020 for failing to keep its plant “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were working in close proximity to each other and were exposed to” Covid. JBS contested the fine.
Tyson Foods, which processes 20 percent of US beef, pork, and chicken, announced plans in September 2020 to open medical clinics operated by Marathon Health for employees and their families at seven of its US plants. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 24,000 of Tyson’s 120,000 US workers, welcomed Tyson’s decision to open plant clinics, noting that 18,000 of the 500,000 US meatpacking workers contracted Covid between March and August 2020, and over 100 died.
OSHA fined Smithfield Foods $13,500 for not maintaining a safe workplace in its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant, where 1,300 of the 3,700 workers who process 20,000 hogs a day tested positive for Covid. The UFCW, which represents the workers in the Sioux Falls plant, called the fine inadequate. Smithfield appealed the fines, saying they were for violations in March 2020 even though OSHA did not issue safety guidelines until April 2020.
OSHA was criticized for small fines and dismissing over half of the 1,750 complaints from workers filed between April and July 2020 alleging that employers retaliated against them during the pandemic. OSHA countered that it regularly dismisses two-thirds of worker complaints.
Cal/OSHA fined Vernon-based frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms $222,075 in September 2020, and fined Jobsource North America an additional $214,080 for failing to install barriers, ensure that workers practiced physical distancing, and train employees on the dangers of Covid. Both firms said they would appeal the fines. Cal/OSHA also fined Overhill Farms $103,780 and Jobsource $29,700 for an incident in February 2020 that resulted in two workers having their hands caught in machinery. The UFCW represents many of Overhill’s workers.
Cal/OSHA was praised for levying higher fines than federal OSHA, but criticized for not investigating more worker complaints. Instead of inspections, Cal/OSHA sent letters to employers in response to 95 percent of complaints received asking them to explain how the hazards cited by worker complaints had been remedied. Cal/OSHA said that “letter inspections” were the best use of limited resources.
Between February and May 2020, the spread between the farm and retail prices of fresh meat increased because consumers stocked up on meat while farmers could not sell their animals due to closed meat packing plants. Between 2017 and 2019, beef farmers received an average 42 percent of the retail price of beef, and pork farmers 21 percent. Between February and May 2020, the farm share of beef retail prices fell to 31 percent, and the pork share to 14 percent.
By September 2020, supermarkets that limited fresh meat purchases in April 2020 were putting meat on sale as processors worked off the inventory of animals that accumulated and exports of meat were slowed by Covid.
Supermarkets employ 2.7 million workers for an average hourly wage of $13.20. Some supermarket employees complained in summer 2020 that they were expected to do more work such as cleaning but were no longer receiving the extra $1 to $2 an hour that some stores paid to front-line workers early in the pandemic. Some employees complained that enforcing orders to wear masks inside stores put them in danger from angry customers.